I never had a hamster until I was an adult and realized that the little nocturnal furballs were the perfect companion for a journalist who worked a night news desk, would come home around midnight and crash by 4 or 5 a.m. My first two hamster experiences weren’t that successful because, well, I wasn’t experienced in hamster ownership and didn’t know the cues of how to spot and select a healthy hamster. My first, Hugo, turned out to be sickly and died in his cage after a few weeks. With my second, Moammar, I was told by the Petco staffer that he was four months old; when he suffered a stroke a month later the vet told me that he was an elderly hamster. The lifespan of a Syrian hamster is generally 1.5-3 years, and my third hamster hit that upper number: Boris, a fluffy white guy who loved puffed rice and would feed shredded kleenex into his cheeks like spaghetti. Another long-haired hamster like the two before, I would comb out his tangles with a soft toothbrush (they can’t exactly get rid of ingested hair like a cat does).
I learned more about hamster ownership with Boris, including the great tip from a vet of keeping a bag of chopped mixed vegetables in the freezer and thawing out a few pieces for him in the evening for his sensitive tummy. I ditched the plastic playland-looking cages for a good wire cage with a solid bottom and real upper floors instead of just platforms. A squeaky hamster wheel (solid plastic running surface for tiny feet) is fixed with a drop of canola oil. And straw mats are great to cut up and cover the upper wire floors. Shortly before Boris passed away, I got Genghis from an animal shelter. He made the long trip to DC with me, and passed away about a year later. As I had an empty smaller cage used for travel, I branched out beyond Syrian hamsters for the first time for a Kazakh: Peanut, a long-lived winter white hamster who, yes, changed fur color with the seasons. He sat on my desk as I worked and would dangle from the top bars like a jungle gym to get treats. Though super-friendly, he wasn’t one to be held, though; unlike my Syrians, this breed was quite nippy.
To fill Genghis’ deluxe hamster condo, I got a brown bear hamster I was going to name Attila. She looked just like the bear on the flag of my home state, though, so I called her CaliBear. She was quite shy and lived about a year and a half. After Peanut died, I filled the small cage with another small variety, a Chinese dwarf hamster named Ham Jintao. They don’t bite, but he’s also quite shy and I don’t see him much. My next Syrian hamster, however, would be anything but shy.
Enter Ivan the Terrible.